Racing in the U.S.

As we plunge into the next millennium, the only thing clear about American racing is that NASCAR rules, while America’s other national or quasi-international series are languishing at best, falling quickly from favor at worst. While NASCAR has recently struck a huge deal with television broadcasters, the bargains Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) and the Indy Racing League (IRL) have been able to forge with broadcast entities are not nearly as sweet. So a major question hanging over American racing as we enter the 21st Century is, whither goest open-wheel racing in the United States?

Before we examine the CART/IRL dilemma, let’s first look at the phenomenal success of NASCAR. Without doubt NASCAR is as low-tech as major motor racing can be with fields consisting of overhead valve V-8-powered rear-drive cars, technology that was current about 1975. Playing down the "stock car" nomenclature these days because its cars are about as far from an everyday driver as a chariot is from a stagecoach, NASCAR nonetheless gathers huge crowds and mammoth TV audiences. Why? Because the racing is close; the cars actually pass each other; and most of the races are contested on easy-to-televise oval tracks.

Because of all this Fox, NBC and TBS recently ponied up $2.4 billion for the rights to broadcast the total NASCAR schedule for a period of eight years in Fox’s case and six years for NBC/TBS. Not only is that a whale of a lot of money, it represents about a fourfold increase in the fees paid for NASCAR broadcast rights when the NASCAR schedule was pedaled by the individual tracks to the various networks. Now NASCAR’s deal is very much like that of the NFL, with a consortium of networks holding broadcast rights to each and every race. The Daytona 500, which is essentially the World Series or Super Bowl of NASCAR, will be televised by Fox or NBC on an every other year basis.

The Daytona 500, like the Indianapolis 500, is a race that draws TV ratings far in excess of a typical race in its series, so the opportunity to televise it is one of the plums of the deal. But unlike the World Series or Super Bowl, which come at the tail end of their respective seasons and bring them to at least semi-logical conclusions, Daytona is the first NASCAR race of the year. One has to wonder what the ratings for the race would be if the Daytona 500 were designated the last race of the year, and the season championship could be decided by who won it. Maybe this is the next marketing fillip the Frances will add to their NASCAR marketing juggernaut. Or maybe it’s too good an idea to ever happen in real life.

Despite this traditional oddity of scheduling, NASCAR is sitting pretty compared to the two American open-wheel series, CART and the IRL. The Indy Racing League did recently sign a pact with ABC/ESPN, but it was not nearly as lucrative as the NASCAR deal. In fact, insiders believe the only reason ABC stepped up was the Indianapolis 500, which is the IRL’s keystone event and still the most-watched racing event in the United States.

Certainly from a scheduling point of view the Indianapolis 500 is in even a worse position in the IRL schedule than the Daytona 500 is in NASCAR’s slate. For the year 2000, the Indy 500 will be preceded by at least two races, in Phoenix and in Las Vegas, before the premier event in the series is contested. After the Memorial Day weekend classic, the rest of the summer will see the IRL cars running out the string in seven more races, all of which will be covered by ABC or ESPN but many of which will play to half-empty stands. There is no doubt that whatever power the IRL has with audiences and, thus, with networks, stems solely from the Indianapolis 500. That race, however, is a potent totem and watching it seems a traditional part of many Americans Memorial Day weekends, no matter who is driving each of the cars.

From an aesthetic point of view the IRL is somewhere between the dinosaur racing of NASCAR and the higher-tech racing of CART and Formula One. IRL chassis are virtually as advanced as CART chassis, but in the engine department its quasi-stock-block Oldsmobile and Infiniti engines are lower on the food chain than the CART purpose-built turbocharged engines. F1, of course, takes CART technology and doubles or triples it to the point that the cars are incredibly expensive and often incredibly boring to watch race. As NASCAR demonstrates, in America, at least, it’s not the technology of the cars that draws viewers; it’s how exciting the racing action is.

One of the IRL claims is that its series is pure American oval track racing, not unlike NASCAR but with open-wheel cars. But the crowds that devour NASCAR have yet to show a similar hankering for the IRL races. Meanwhile, CART seems bent on a strategy to make it a sort of American-based Formula One series. Most of its races are conducted on road courses or temporary street circuits, which makes it more difficult to televise coherently. CART has gone international, which might make some marketing sense, but it also means events from South America or Australia are likely to be broadcast at oddball times. The series is also filled with foreign drivers, a factor that might alienate some fans. Worse yet, road circuits make for limited passing opportunities, which can leave many CART telecasts woefully devoid of compelling racing action.

But CART’s biggest difficulty is the fact that, despite the fact that it is operated by well-known and substantially funded racing executives, it lacks a marquee event that comes close to the stature of the Indy or Daytona 500s. In fact, the average man-on-the-street would be hard-pressed to name any CART race or any CART driver, for that matter. Of course, because it lacks a marquee event, CART’s television deal is the worst of all. Reportedly, it usually buys its way onto either ABC or ESPN.

For the year 2000, CART is taking a gamble by covertly encouraging its teams to compete in its rival’s premier event, the Indianapolis 500. Several CART owners, who are known for their rampant chutzpah, seem to figure that waltzing into Indy and walking off with the big trophy is relatively easy pickings. But others think they might be underestimating the learning curve that goes with shifting their cars from turbocharged power to normally aspirated engines of vastly different displacement.

The IRL’s Tony George, who also happens to run the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, is rolling the dice that the CART owners will help him fill his Indy 500 field with good cars and talented drivers, and he probably figures even if a CART teams wins, he’s still running the biggest show in American racing. Meanwhile, the CART owners don’t seem to have all that much to gain by going to Indy in May. Sure, their sponsors are pressuring them to get the big Indy 500 TV exposure, and one of them might win the race, but their collective presence and the absence of a competing CART race over the Memorial Day weekend virtually guarantees big audience numbers for their chief nemesis, Tony George.

So CART is stuck between a road course and a hard place. The IRL is really just one race plus a series of placeholders, and NASCAR is a low-tech crowd-pleaser that’s a huge success despite running its season backwards. No one ever said auto racing was a rational endeavor, and in the year 2000 it’s about as irrational as a big-money sport can be. Of course, nobody asked me.

Rayceburn observes the American motor racing scene from his home in Michigan.